The Low Down on Pull Ups: 10 Ways to Repair and Strengthen Your Pull Ups
Feeling down about getting up? Here are ten ways you can repair bad movement in your pull ups, strengthen your muscles, and get yourself over that bar.
1. Keep Your Chin Up
In gymnastic work it is key (and often forgotten or not taught at all) to lift the eyes upward. I cannot tell you how many times I see people doing gymnastic bar work (pull ups, knees to elbows, toes to bar) with a downward eye drift or a tucked chin. Focus the eyes upward slightly and lift the head. This helps put the entire body from core to back to grip into a full-body position, which is strongest position and the way to get the most out of all of your bar work.
2. Pulldowns for Pull Ups
One of the best ways to build a pull up is to work on the lat pulldown machine. Practice a variety of grips - wide, close-grip, narrow, D-grip straight-bar (wide), straight bar, or chin-up straight bar - and work them together in superset or drop set variations. Also mix in some max holds.
The important key here is to imitate the pull up by bringing the bar to the front of the body (not behind) while engaging the back and core throughout, keeping flat feet with legs locked in, and maintaining a slight trunk angle backwards on the seat (like you would in a pull up). Keep the eye gaze up and forward. No rocking and maintain minimal movement. This is not an inverted cable row, but the back is arched with chest out and elbows pointed to the waist. Squeeze back.
3. Turn Negatives to Positives
A great strength-building element to improve pull up strength and muscle endurance is to incorporate negative work frequently and often. I typically encourage pull up work (and pull up work with negatives) two to three times per week with my own athletes in order to keep the gymnastic elements active and strong.
Once you can pull yourself up (you can use a spotter, see tip number seven), lower yourself as slowly as possible from the bar. Keep your core tight and engage the back as you very slowly descend from the bar. Remember to look up here too. An important note here is to never drop into a dead hang or to lose any tension through the arms at the bottom. Having said that, make sure to get a legit rep by lowering to full extension, but do not let yourself just fall into it and essentially bottom out. If you are learning and not able to go right into the next pull up, drop off the bar right before this happens. You can even do these on the lat machine (see tip number two) as you slowly release the bar back to the top of the pull.
4. Kick the Kip to the Curb
Replace kipping pull ups with strict pull ups to build the lats and stable joints. Strict pull ups also help to prevent injury by saving the shoulder structure. 100 pull ups for time can be impressive, but injuries aren’t anything to brag about. The high impact and extreme range of motion of high rep kipping can completely destroy a shoulder. So is there any benefit to the kip or to butterfly pull ups? If you are competitive, then you need to practice kipping or the butterfly to stay in the game, but for both the competitive and for everyone else the majority of your training should be strict work.
5. Drop Weight
Build strength and muscle endurance with drop sets. A great way to do these is to work them on the lat pulldown machine (see tips two and three) or on the seated row machine. Start with a heavy weight that is enough to get five to seven reps, but the last couple should be tough. Do not negotiate form, and remember your goal is as little rest as possible between drops. These first heavier sets may should be even harder after a set or two, even to get three to four reps. Now drop to a modest weight for max reps (if you’re getting more than eight the weight is too light) and lastly, drop to a even lighter weight and finish with max reps and a max hold on the last rep. There are several variations so be creative but intentional with each (also see tip eight).
6. Excess Baggage
Build up your pull up strength by adding weight. This is best done with a dip belt. Attachments include chains or clasps to grip either a kettlebell or plates. You can also do supersets or drop sets with weighted pull ups and weighted dips. Make sure you are maintaining form (see numbers one and nine). One thing to be aware of is to never go with weighted anything until you can legitimately do them with just your bodyweight. In other words, if you are not getting a full range of motion without weight, don’t add any weight to the equation. This is a tool to improve and strengthen an already-existing bodyweight pull up.
7. Lighten Up
Speaking of bodyweight - toss the bands. They won’t help you here. If you need help with bodyweight pull ups, get a proper bodyweight spot. Spotters: Never spot by the foot - a proper spot is by the hips.
And here is the cold truth - the less you weigh, the less weight there is to pull up. Strength is key of course and many can pull up their bodyweight even when they’re heavier. Imagine what happens when you lose that weight - your pull ups will improve no matter what simply because you are now lighter, even if you haven’t gotten stronger. This isn’t anything too scientific but it is common sense. At that point when body weight is not longer difficult to pull up, you can (and should) add weight (see tip six) but first you need to master and manage the body’s actual weight.
8. Go to the Bar
Rings, barbells, and curls. Yes, curls. You might be familiar with ring or barbell rows but don’t neglect the curls either. Biceps are built this way too. You can (and should) do drop set and superset varieties of all of these. For curls, work with unilateral, bilateral, and preacher curls to name a few. Keep elbows tight to the body to help avoid swinging. There are hundreds of strength training exercises that have been around a long time for a very good reason. These curling movements are a few of them and they will only benefit you. Keep everything tight, floor to core, and remember it is all in the squeeze, not just the weight. Curls even work the triceps when done properly.
Ring rows and barbell rows are great for not only the back and arms, but the core as well. I like to use a bench for ring rows to elevate the feet for even greater range of motion.
9. The Main Squeeze
Too often I see people move vertically in the pull up. What I mean by that is, many people forget that pull ups are back work (also bicep, forearm, and core when doing them properly) and they forget to engage the muscles of the back. Too many people pull themselves up with the arms only and do so in a straight-up motion. Pull ups require a slight backward motion, angled off the bar in order to use all of the muscles in the back while keeping the core tight and head up and forward.
10. Be Open
Practice all varieties of pull ups. Space the hands narrow, wide or in between, reverse grip, or use different grips on the pull up rig to work all different areas of the back, arms, forearms, and core. A great routine that can be modified into many forms is to do a few sets of max reps with a wide grip, then repeat the scheme with a chin up grip, or even a narrow grip or with rings. You can even superset these variations with the corresponding back or core work previously mentioned. Of course, it is best to have your programmer design workouts and volume in a rep or weight scheme for your best results.
Photos courtesy of Katie Chasey and RXBound.